At New York’s Pienanny Bakery, Pastries Pack a Punch
Tiffany-Anne Parkes, the chef-owner of New York’s Pienanny, makes sweet and savory pastries that chart new territory. Her recent creations include a Jamaican stout custard pie with a black-cocoa pastry crust, and a ginger-curd pie topped with cream-cheese frosting and a cut-out figure, inspired by Kara Walker’s 1998 artwork “Burn,” covered in a layer of vodka-infused watermelon gelatin. We recently spoke with Parkes about the unexpected origins of her bakery’s name, and what makes a great pie.
Where does the name Pienanny come from?
Most people don’t know this, but it’s actually inspired by my mother. When I was a teenager, I was a little boy-crazy. My mother had her two cents to put into that, and one of my favorite moments was when she said, “Don’t you ever chase a man. Because if you have to, that means he’s running after somebody else’s [poonanny].” It’s a Southern word, as well as a Caribbean word, for female genitalia. But there are other ways to look at the name, too. I’m actually about to do an Instagram post on Queen Nanny [who was purportedly born in the 1680s, brought to Jamaica enslaved, and led a group of her peers in escaping from plantations].
That’s fascinating. How did you get into making pies?
I’ve always been fixated on tactile things. I love working with my hands, and have been drawing since I was five years old. [Art] wasn’t encouraged by my parents as a profession, though. I have typical immigrant parents who want you to be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer—something that, in their minds, is very stable. Getting into pies came after I started playing around with ceramics. When I carve designs [in my pastries], I use the tools of a ceramicist.
The flavors I use come from growing up in a Jamaican-American household. Both of my parents are Jamaican: My mother is half Syrian, half Black; my father is half Indian. Jamaica is heavily influenced by Indian cuisine because of indentured servitude—East Indians being brought to the Caribbean.
How do those flavors inform your definition of the perfect pie?
A great pie has bursts of flavor and an amazing crust—whether it be a flaky pastry crust, a crumble crust, or a standard butter crust. I like to create variations in the flavors and crust types, too. A new one I just developed is an Indo-Caribbean milk-tea custard tart, which is a play on a chai latte.
That sounds amazing. You’re redefining the meaning of a personal pie.
I love pies because there’s literally an iteration of them in every culture. Pies are the perfect symbol of cultural diffusion, which is cool. A pie is also a way to blend a bunch of different flavors into one thing. It’s very American.